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June 24, 2004

My mother's mother

My mother and aunts took my grandmother to the hospital last night. She's there now in a morphine fog. Current thinking is she'll never come out of it.

She's not that old - 88 - but she's had severe circulatory problems for the past few years: edemous legs, massive bruises, difficulty getting around. The last few weeks, her foot had swollen to the point where arterial replacement was indicated, except that she wouldn't have lived through it.

And so they suggested amputation. And she, stubborn as ever, refused. And her foot got worse, and toes started getting gangrenous. Yesterday the pain got to be too much, even for her. When she got to the hospital she became furious, accused her daughters of betraying her, not to mention my cousin the EMT who got her into the ambulance by agreeing to ride in back with her.

In 1996 Becky and Zeke and I drove to New York to my sister's wedding, and spent a few days visiting relatives in the Finger Lakes. My grandmother was taking care of grandkids - every day for four decades, pretty much - and was tired. And then the grandkids left, except for Becky and me. And Grandma came back to life as though she'd swigged a double espresso, dragged out photos of ancestors I'd never heard of, told stories of Civil War veterans; of her father, the Prohibition-era hotel proprietor (he kept the hooch under a trapdoor beneath her crib); of her inlaws. A woman in a photo taken perhaps sixty years before scowled familiarly: Grandma's sister-in-law, who didn't speak to my grandfather for decades because her turned down her offer of tuition at Cornell. He never spoke of his family: I never heard the story until seven years after he'd died.

The fifteenth anniversary of his death was this May. Though Grandma has put up a brave and occasionally cheerful front since then - we had an animated, happy conversation for half an hour just five days ago - she's been waiting to join him since the day we planted him in the little cemetery in Ovid.

The moment we turned to leave his casket was the first time I'd ever seen her cry. "I can't just leave him here!" Anguish. My uncle Fran, Air Force Stoic and at arms' length from his family for the whole weekend, took her into his arms. "He's not here, Mom. That's not him." She apologized to me later for blubbering.

She had his burial in mind that day in 1996. Waiting for the relatives to assemble for Grandpa Xavier's services had been hellish for her, her kids arguing, arrangements and expenses and disagreements. When Becky left the room for a moment, she made me promise not to drop everything and fly back from California for her funeral, whenever it came. Easy promise to agree with, then and now. In fact, there will be no funeral: a simple graveside service to inter her ashes next to her husband.

Her mind was completely intact to this day. We had two long conversations this year. Morphine is a gift from God. There are many things for which I am grateful. And yet I look at my life, the unanswered cards as a kid, the California gardens I've planted with her never-to-occur visits in the back of my mind, the steady presence she has been in what has been my rather unsteady life these last four decades, and I bitterly regret not turning to myself two weeks ago and saying fuck the job, fuck the expense, fuck that promise, I'm the oldest grandchild, I'm getting on a plane.

I didn't, and now it's too late. She might hold on until I can get out there, but everyone in the family hopes to hell she doesn't.

On Sunday, she called me "honey." She hadn't done that, I think, for forty years.

I'm sorry, Grandma, and thanks for everything.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 24, 2004 09:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Lucid and caring til 88? That sounds like a pretty good prospect to me. When the time comes, will I have such grandchildren as you have been? Who can say. Thanks for sharing this story, Chris.

Posted by: fred1st at June 28, 2004 05:41 PM
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Yes, thanks. It's a wonderful tribute to an intriguing person.

And you are right about the morphine. When I think about what the last days of my godfather's life would have been like without it, I shudder.

Posted by: Rana at June 29, 2004 10:49 AM
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Thanks Chris. She'd have loved it. She talked about your rabbit all week after you called her - every time a wild rabbit was in her yard eating her garden, she threatened to ship it to CA to keep you company.

Posted by: mklue at June 29, 2004 02:38 PM
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Beautiful Chris, but Grandma would have washed your mouth with soap maybe for the F words, but maybe not!! Too funny, she told me to shut my mouth and called your Uncle Daryl an asshole one day, was so funny.

Posted by: DBennett at July 8, 2004 04:48 AM
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We will all miss your grandma terribly. Your words will help keep her alive. You always manage to tell me things your grandmother told you that I have never heard before. Mom

Posted by: Rita at July 8, 2004 02:47 PM
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